Nouvel Observateur - (France) 10-16 May, 2001
"Bernard Frank's Column"
"Hard to spell" -
1. The Gang of Three
Ruth Valentini pointed out to Marcel Reich-Ranicki (My Life, Grasset)
that he said very little about French literature and French writers
on his famous television program, "The Literary Quartet".
To this he replied quite brusquely that he didn't wish to express
himself about French literature. He said he was not a regular reader
of contemporary French literature. He was fond of our classics,
of course, and by classics he meant Balzac, Stendhal and Flaubert.
On the other hand, he did not like either Voltaire or Diderot. But
he had read a lot of Maupassant and Marcel Proust. And as for what
is called le nouveau roman, the only one he appreciates is Michel
Butor; they must have met in Switzerland or Germany between two
conferences, two planes, two trains. He likes Nathalie Sarraute
It is curious that anyone as cultivated as Reich-Ranicki prefers
Butor to Sarraute. Generally it is the opposite. I mean, one would
have expected him to prefer Sarraute, seemingly more readable and
yet published in Pléiade. "And Claude Simon not at all,"
he adds. Yes, he does not like Claude Simon at all. That's how it
is. It's the same with Houellebecq, whom he talked about on his
famous television program. You can't have everything, the Nobel
and the favour of Reich-Ranicki. And not a word about Robbe-Grillet.
Ordinarily when one talks about the nouveau roman, one always says
a word or two about Robbe-Grillet, it is a tradition. After all
he was the founder of it, and the most fun.
There are four or five of them, I couldn't name all of them, who
are experts in literature. Doctors generally. Doctors in something.
Attached to great faculties. The kind of readers they don't make
any more. The kind of readers one would like to be oneself. World-famous.
There is George Steiner. There is Reich-Ranicki. And in addition,
recently translated in France, at last, there is Stephen Vizinczey.
As Epoca said, it is a name "difficult to spell and to pronounce,
but it is the worth taking the trouble to learn".
Let us take the trouble. Vizinczey is a Hungarian who fought against
Soviet troops at the end of 1956 when he was, it seems, a very young
man, a poet and playwright. He had to flee to the West. And he learned
English, of which he knew only fifty words, to perfection. Anthony
Burgess said of him that he was "one of those writers who can
teach the English how to write English". Like Conrad and Nabokov.
That is where the fate of France was duped. We couldn't keep them.
And of course it wasn't easy, after 1940, to detain refugees. The
Vichy government didn't especially want them, and when it did detain
them, it was to put them in camps. Let us not be too upset if we
couldn't keep Conrad; in 2001, you can't say we lack refugees.
II. - It would be too good to be true
You can open Vérité.s et mensonges en littérature
(Editions du Rocher) not quite at random, but almost. And it will
be really bad luck if you do not find this passage, which will make
you want to read the whole thing. "Thousands of novels are
published every year, and these require a growing number of reviewers,
which means a lowering of standards in all fields. Consequently
most published novels are written by people who cannot write and
most reviews are written by people who cannot read... Great works
are constantly allowed to go out of print to make room for new rubbish.
Balzac's literary essays, which belong among the most profound pages
of literary criticism ever written, have been out of print for decades
[Stephen Vizinczey is talking here about bookshops in Canada and
the United States], while academic charlatans like Jacques Derrida
publish a steady stream of books full of worthless theories and
deliberately incomprehensible jargon which clutter the desks of
editors, the shelves of bookshops and the brains of the students
who have to read them."
You can see why Stephen Vizinczey has not always been appreciated
by the big papers and the big critics of New York and why he has
found sound judgment in a few exceptional provincial papers. In
1968 when he attacked, for example, William Styron's The Confessions
of Nat Turner, which he judged to be in fact a racist novel, he
could almost say what he thought of this false masterpiece in the
Times of London. But in his review he had the misfortune to bring
his New York colleagues to the fore and quote extensively from their
reviews. Thus Edmond Fuller of the Wall Street Journal:
"William Styron has written the true American tragedy... There
can be no doubt, now, that he is the foremost writer of his generation
in American fiction." As Vizinczey points out, "The critics
who praised the novel have the reputation of being the best judges
of books in America. When they speak with one voice about a book,
libraries order a couple of hundred thousand copies. To question
their judgment was to challenge their power to generate multi-million-dollar
Later, Vizinczey was quite surprised that not a line appeared about
his book The Rules of Chaos, in which his essay on Styron was included.
It would be too good to be true if you could be right, could make
fun of those who have lacked judgment, and then be applauded by
them as well. You have to know how to wait. And even wait for nothing.
"I will be read in 1880 or 1935," said our beloved Stendhal.
But that is Paradise. Most of the time, you are never read. You
have to know how to be content most often with the good opinion
you yourself have of your judgments and writings.
by Bernard Frank